Beyond Discipline Boundaries: Why Lessons from Science Education are not only for Scientists

Anna Wood  Last month I gave a talk at a conference called VICEPHEC.  What was particularly interesting was that this was actually two conferences in one – bringing together people interested in Chemistry education (Variety in Chemistry Education – VICE) and those involved in Physics education (Physics Education Conference – PHEC).  The idea was that while each subject has individual discipline specific challenges, there is also a lot that we can (and did) learn from each other.  It is perhaps not surprising that there is significant overlap in the educational issues being discussed by physicists and chemists, they are after all in many ways very similar subjects.  But what about those in other fields?  Can science education inform thinking in other disciplines?

A first glance at the science education literature might lead to the conclusion that this is unlikely.  Many articles are highly subject and content specific, discussing for example, ideas about how to teach the conservation of momentum, practical demonstrations for exploring magnetic forces, or uncovering the difficulties that students have in understanding key concepts such as the ideas of force, velocity or work done.  In addition, approaches in science education are naturally influenced by the ‘ways of thinking and practising’ of the discipline – in other words, it is not just the content that makes the discipline ‘science’, but the specific ways that semiotic resources (words, mathematical notation, diagrams, graphs) are used within the disciplinary discourse.  If both the content and the ways of thinking are so discipline specific, what can science education say that is relevant to other non-science disciplines?

On the other hand, surely the fundamental processes of learning are the same, irrespective of the subject being studied.  This was particularly highlighted for me while studying the ‘Understanding Learning in the Online Environment’ module, as part of the MSc in E-learning (now Digital Education) at the University of Edinburgh.  The title of this course was often shortened to ‘Understanding Learning’, which I think was apt, because one theme of the course was that the fundamental processes of learning, the ideas about how learning happens, are the same regardless of the medium through which that learning takes place.  We examined Skinner and behaviourism, Piaget and constructivism, Vygotsky and socio-cultural learning.  We looked at ideas of chunking, of cognitive dissonance and of peer-assessment.  If these all apply to knowledge, whatever from it takes, is learning science really that different to learning in other disciplines?  And consequently does science education have anything different to add that is of value to other disciplines?

Of course, in reality teaching (and learning) involves a complex relationship between discipline specific subject matter /ways of thinking and pedagogic practice, all interacting with theoretical perspectives about learning.  My view is that thinking about the specific challenges in science education provides a particular lens through which to view the processes of learning, and that this can lead to new ways to think about learning that are relevant not only to the specific problem being studied, but also to other subjects, and other disciplines.   I think that ideas both from research and pedagogic practice in science education can be relevant beyond science.  Of course, none of these were developed in isolation: each of these examples was influenced by the wider educational and cognitive psychology research literature.

My first example comes from research studying problem solving in physics. Problem solving is a key skill in physics and a great deal of research has sought to understand it.  Much of this was originally inspired by the artificial intelligence community who were interested in attempting to recreate human thinking in computer programmes. These studies, and in particular the work by Larkin et al. and Chi et al. found that there are significant differences between experts and novices, for example in the way that they organise information and the way they use representations (such as diagrams).  Of particular relevance to non-science disciplines is the finding that experts seem to organise knowledge in terms of concepts and principles, whereas novices think primarily about surface features of a problem.  Experts also create strong links between knowledge elements, which means that a particular type of problem automatically activates a group of related knowledge.  These results are relevant to other disciplines.  For example, similar research in history found that experts’ thinking was channelled by the ‘big ideas’ enabling them to make sense of complex data even when it was not in their area of expertise. Novices, in contrast, struggled, but scored well on factual tests.  This work shows that research originally designed to understand problem solving in physics can tell us something about the general processes of learning that is relevant across the disciplines.

It is not just theoretical ideas that have been influenced by science education; pedagogic practices, developed originally for science instruction have also been taken up by other disciplines.  Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT) is one such example 1.   The essence of JiTT is that students complete web-based assignments before the class, which gives information to teachers about their level of understanding, and areas of difficulty, allowing the teachers to adjust their teaching to the exact needs of the students.   Although clearly influenced by current thinking about feedback, dialogue and engagement in learning, JiTT was created by physicists to address the particular need of finding a way to increase engagement and active learning within physics classes.  In science, lectures have traditionally been (and often still are) the principle method for content delivery, and in those lectures students are the passive receivers of information, rather than being actively engaged in learning.  This was (and still is) a problem that is particularly relevant to science.  In the arts and humanities lectures are not so central, students often do reading before coming to the lectures, they write papers, attend tutorials and discuss in seminars.  However, the success of the JiTT approach means that it has now spread beyond science, and has been adapted for use in subjects as diverse as psychology, maths, computer science and English.

There are many other examples: Peer-Instruction was developed by the Harvard physicist Eric Mazur and the flipped classroom was conceived by two high school chemistry teachers Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams; both of these are now used widely outside science.  Ideas about conceptual change, which dominate thinking in science education are also being applied to other disciplines.

While each of these examples was certainly influenced by many different ideas, I think they show that the specific challenges, and ways of thinking in science education, can generate ideas that are important for, and can inform thinking in, other disciplines. Being aware of these may help us to become less isolated by discipline, and more open to learning from each other.

  1. JiTT was developed by Gregor Novak jointly with Andrew Gavrin, assistant professor of physics at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis IUPUI, and Evelyn Patterson, associate professor of physics at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado.


Bransford, J. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academies Press.

Chi, M. T. (1978). Knowledge structures and memory development. Children’s Thinking: What Develops, 1, 75–96.

Chi, M. T. H., Feltovich, P. J., & Glaser, R. (1981). Categorization and representation of physics problems by experts and novices. Cognitive Science, 5(2), 121–152.

Larkin, J., McDermott, J., Simon, D. P., & Simon, H. A. (1980). Expert and novice performance in solving physics problems. Science, 208(4450), 1335–1342.

McCune, V., & Hounsell, D. (2005). The development of students’ ways of thinking and practising in three final-year biology courses. Higher Education, 49(3), 255–289.

Wineburg, S. S. (1991). Historical problem solving: A study of the cognitive processes used in the evaluation of documentary and pictorial evidence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(1), 73.



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